Betsy Burton is the co-owner and co-founder of The King's English Bookshop. In addition to her life as a bookseller, she is an activist for all things local, and also President of the American Booksellers Association. Her book, The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, continues to be a bestseller at our shop. In her spare time, Betsy is working on a book about her son, a young man with some disabilities and some extraordinary abilities as well. She still loves the book business as much as she did when she started almost forty years ago.
The aftermath of war shed a livid glow across the world long after the last bombs were dropped in 1945. In London the lives of two children, Nathaniel and Rachel, were caught in that eerie glow when their mother disappeared, leaving them in the care of “The Moth,” a stranger they’d met once. Still attending school in the day, the pair entered a strange new world in the evenings, their home a sort of night circus with The Moth its impresario, his sidekick “The Darter” ever-present, and a menagerie of mismatched urban dwellers from beekeepers to opera stars, dog smugglers to ethnographers to spies. From the laundry room in the bowels of the Hotel Criterion in Piccadilly Circus to the vacant London houses Nathaniel invaded with his first love Agnes to night journeys with Rachel and The Darter in mussel boats on the Thames, life became a moonlit kaleidoscope of lurid and larger-than-life people and experiences. Their naiveté in the often magical and as often nightmarish parent-free world they were learning to inhabit is the stuff of this brilliant novel—along with the aftermath of their abandonment as they come of age and enter adulthood. As breathlessly told as The English Patient, and as profound, as poignant as The Cat’s Table, and as haunting, Warlight surpasses both in the light it sheds on our aloneness, on our unadmitted needfulness, on the ways war can warp our lives, and on what we try so hard to bury in the darkness of unacknowledged memory. Brilliant doesn’t begin to describe it.
Reading Power’s new novel is a bit like reading the Bible—it’s voluminous, lyrical, passionate, compelling, chockfull of fascinating characters, of tales that span years and continents, and beneath its overarching, endlessly compelling story lies one central truth: in this case, the truth of trees. Unlike the Bible, The Overstory is grounded in science as intriguing as the tales it tells, as fascinating as the cast of characters who trek the forests and track the pathways of the internet
Powers pulls us into. A research scientist, two voracious readers, an artist, an engineer, a statistician, a techie to the nth degree, trees of every imaginable variety, all interact across species and interests and inclination in a breathtaking book that enchants you, angers you, takes away your hope, gives it back....the ride of a lifetime. The ride of our collective lifetime. Our overstory. Do not miss it. Give a copy to everyone you know. Spread the word. This is a life-changing book.
If Sheldon Horowitz, the octogenarian New Yorker on the run in Oslo in Norwe- gian by Night, was an intriguing, quirky, and in the end unforgettable character, so too is Irving Wylie, the laid-back philo- sophical sheriff, part-time theologian
and full-time humorist, who is searching for a Norwegian suspected of murder
in upstate New York. Sigard Odegard, Oslo’s police chief, has been packed off to America by her father to rescue Marcus, a brother she hasn’t seen for decades and
the suspect in the murder Irv is investigating. Prepare yourself for not only a mystery of substance but a satiric look at America from kind- ness to kitsch, guns to gluttony (the Cheesecake Factory scene for one sly example) to overt and covert racism as plainspoken Sigard crosses swords and words with the ever-surprising (and often laugh-out-loud funny) Irv. Romance, suspense, humor are all here but so is a witty, perceptive picture of America, warts and all. I loved it.
Two scientists, one an American naturalist who’s studying the lifeway of the urban fox, the other a Ghanaian psychiatrist who’s studying the impact of trauma on the brain, on human behavior, collide, literally, on a bridge in London. That collision is figurative as well as literal, however, since their encounter creates not just a connection but an unraveling, a re-raveling, that has consequences for them both. All of which sounds neat and tidy but like life, there is nothing tidy or neat about this intriguing, sometimes touching, often funny tale, weaving as it does an ardent chase down urban streets in search of a fox, of a missing child, of an old love, with a search for truth through the muddiness of misinformed beliefs and convictions. Happiness is a skillfully constructed, wonderfully written and complicated novel but also a fast-moving one; I couldn’t put it down and I can’t quit thinking about it.
A mind-boggling number of close encounters with death—each accompanied by a detailed anatomical depiction of an organ or body part—is a curious framework for a memoir. Although taken separately each is compelling, some breathtakingly so, it is when one is added to the next that a picture emerges—not of a woman in love with death but (as the anatomical drawings indicate) of someone whose death defying-behavior might have, at least in part, a physical cause. Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s unchronological, mysterious and compelling tale of life and death is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a trip into womanhood and motherhood that explores the apparent randomness of experience, teasing out clues, physical and emotional, until a shadowy shape begins to sharpen, leading to blinding recognition of what it means to be human. Subtle, masterful, life-changing.
Anyone who harbored a trace of doubt about Ward’s literary chops after reading the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones can lay that doubt to rest. Ward’s third novel is a marvel and a wonder, possessed of a narrative line that keeps your heart in your throat for all 285 pages. We watch inhumanity play itself out in the person of Leonie, mother to Jojo—and, despite our revulsion, we somehow find things in her to love—or if not love at least understand. We fall headlong for Jojo himself, small, sturdy of heart, caregiver of his sister Kayla, and are instantly ensnared as they, along with a friend, drive toward the barbarous Mississippi prison Parchmont to pick up Leonie’s white husband, drive homeward with him and with Richie, the disembodied spirit of a boy Jojo’s age whose past is tangled with the past of the prison, the past of Jojo’s family. Sing Unburied, Sing is an important book the way The Sound and the Fury was—lyrical, truth-telling, often agonizing and as often alive with an awareness of the courage and grace in small children and in damaged adults alike. It’s not a book you’ll ever forget. Not ever.
The Mrs. Osmond of the title, none other than Isabel Archer, has stepped out of the final pages of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and into those of an astonish- ing sequel, addressing readers’ long-time fears for the safety and the soul of one of James’ most brilliant (and likable) creations. Isabel, in London, has just at- tended the funeral of someone she cared about deeply, and she now seeks counsel from friends; she’s waging an internal battle not so much about whether she’ll return to Rome—she’s made a promise and intends to keep it—but about what she’ll do when she gets there. Not only has she left against her husband’s orders, she had learned, just before her departure, of his hideous betrayal, the details of which are still a cause for much speculation. Her task, as she journeys toward Rome by fits and starts, is to learn the details of what had actually occurred during the years of her marriage, details of which she’d been oblivious. And to find the cause for that oblivion, decipher what had occurred in her own heart and mind to bring her to such a pass. Isabel’s musings are Jamesian in their intricacy and their intelligence, the writing beyond divine, the territory deliciously familiar and yet endlessly surprising. Not only does Mrs. Osmond scratch the itch of curiosity harbored for years by James’ fans, it also bathes whoever picks it up in the same glow of deep if rueful understanding that always permeated his work. Not since Colm Tóibín’s The Master has anyone taken on James with such success.
A wry storytelling style, skill at making connections between seemingly random events and making the complicated seem simple, not to mention a big heart, char- acterize Silber’s intimate, elegant work. The connections in this tale are provided by a Turkish carpet and a car crash; the complications involve weaving the seem- ingly unconnected people and events into a surprising and compelling whole; and Silber’s big heart is evident in the compassion she lavishes on the most doubtful of her characters. Reyna, niece of Kiki and mother of 5-year-old Oliver, has been given a Turkish rug by her aunt who ac- quired said carpet from a long-ago lover in Turkey. Kiki’s adventures abroad included tangential involvement with a trio of Germans en- gaged in smuggling ancient artifacts, while in America a generation later Reyna is likewise tangentially involved with a group engaged in smuggling. Her decision to disentangle herself results in a car crash that forces the characters into a dance of cause and effect, steps and missteps, which ultimately involves everyone. Reyna, Kiki and Oliver in particular will stay in your heart long after the last page is turned— as will the vision of hope that hovers over the imperfect but mostly redeemable cast of characters.
Always the master of the unexpected, Egan, in her new novel, dishes up not the surprising characters and unpredictable turns of A Visit from the Goon Squad
but instead a straightforward historical narrative involving a girl coming of age during the years leading up to WWII. Anna, whose father disappeared when she was still a teen, grows up supposing that the disappearance had something to do with her brain-damaged sister with whom he never really seemed to connect, and also with Dexter, a shadowy figure reminiscent of gangsters in the lit- erature of the time whom she remembers visiting with her father as a child of 11. A strong woman ahead of her time, Anna comes into her own in the Brooklyn shipyards during the war when diving had be- come an essential wartime skill at which she was determined to excel. The complications of plot arise from her father’s connection to Dexter as well as her own later on, her sister’s disability and the impact it has on all the characters, her single-minded determination to be the best at what she did, diving, not to mention the impact of the sea which is an essential part of all their lives. This is a big, beautiful book written with an ear to the movement of the tides, the times, and the lives of women—in and out of their times.
Spare is one word for these bite-sized chunks of prose, slight another (many
are less than a page, none more than six). Some sting, some are sexy, some snark. Or snap with irony—or angst or anger. They deal with, among other things, glitter, running, school, poetry, travel, chickens, sex, marriage, parenthood, old age... In sum? A lifetime. Something else!
Once in a blue moon a new voice emerges that is skillful, erudite and impassioned enough to give us hope that it might, over time, be capable of giving shape to an era in the manner of John Le Carré. Abarbanell is possessed of such a voice and against odds, coming from the pen of a man, it is that of a woman—Lilya, a Jewish agent in British-occupied Pales-tine. Already torn asunder by her lover’s descent into violence and her wish to be involved in founding a new nation rather than revisiting an old one, she is sent into post-WWII Germany in search of a scientist who might or might not be alive. Someone else is also tracking said scientist and as we are thrown into a thrilling mael- strom of plot and counterplot, we see the seeds of what is to become the new world order planted in the dark soil that is the aftermath of Nazism—in England and America as well as in Germany. In search of her quarry, Lilya chases clues from London to Munich and Berlin to the camps for displaced persons, exposing a quagmire of hidden mo- tives and national self-interest that, along with the unnerving similar- ity of the DP camps to the refugee camps of today, haunts the reader, reminding us that the world never ever seems to change.
Most of us know the story of the Cam- bridge spies Philby and Blunt, McClean and Burgess, but after the very public aftermath of their unmasking in the ‘50s, less has been in the press. Now, in light
of Russia’s recent public canonization of Philby, Lawton’s fascinating new thriller which takes us into the world of Guy Burgess—before and after his defection— seems timely both in terms of Soviet skill at using people then and Russia’s skill at doing so today. Chief Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard, himself a Russian
by birth, has been a casual acquaintance, some say friend, of Guy Burgess for years, despite the warnings of Troy’s older brother Rod. When, at age 51, Rod organizes a family tour of Europe and insists that Troy come, Troy is confronted by his old friend Burgess, who says he wants to “come home.” Burgess isn’t the only old friend Troy encounters on his travels and, as one death follows another and the reader is shuttled back and forth in time, not only are we given a rattling good read and a fascinating portrayal of a historical figure, new light is shed on Russian machinations—past and, by implication, present.
Some of Connelly’s mysteries are far better than others; his latest is one of the best of the past decade. Harry Bosch, long since departed from the LAPD and in San Fernando working cold cases, is simulta- neously participating in a murder investigation connected to the pro- liferation of OxyContin-related crimes and defending himself from an accusation associated with his own past in L.A. with the help of his half-brother, attorney Mickey Haller. A murderer Bosch was responsible for putting on death row years before claims Bosch framed him and has evidence to prove it. As readers are shuttled back and forth between past and present, one case and the other, we are given a window into the world being created by the OxyCon- tin epidemic—not just physically but politically and fiscally as well—and also into the intricacies of forensic evidence. The action in the drug case is non-stop and heart-stopping, the legal machina- tions involved in attempting to disprove the supposed frame are fascinating, and Bosch’s relationship with his half-brother is as troublesome as ever. Couldn’t put it down.
This understated and haunting novel about steps not taken, words not said, begins as a comedy of manners ala P.G. Wodehouse— or so it seems. Its protagonist Mr. Stevens, a fusty English Butler, has spent his life in service at Darlington Hall first working for lord D, whom he admired enormously and defended mightily when, in the countdown to WWII, Lord D was accused of having Nazi sympathies. Stevens, still at Darlington Hall and now employed by an American, has received a letter from a woman he had worked with for years before until she left her post to marry. The letter has dropped hints of marital problems, and Stevens has set
out to visit her. There’s comedy in his ruminations as he travels but a growing sense of pathos too, as the reader realizes how misguided his opinions, recognizes his over-idealized view of the virtues of ser- vice, not to mention his misperceptions about the people he served, his willingness to use his glorified sense of duty as an excuse. All of which culminates when he meets with Mrs. Kenton—a meeting that like most of the book is delivered in hindsight. This is a novel to read and reread—and to revisit in memory. Surely one of the great books of our time.
A story told in the refracted light of mem- ory, Chabon’s latest is a memoir inside of a novel inside of a memoir. Lent verisi- militude by the occasional footnote and by the narrative voice of Michael Chabon as Michael Chabon, it’s set up as a sort of reverse Princess Bride: an old man is on his deathbed, his grandson in atten- dance (although the tale it tells is as far from fantasy as one can get). Customarily taciturn, the grandfather is uncommonly garrulous, in part due to painkillers but in larger part to the fact that memories are bubbling to the surface of his conscious mind one after another, ready to spill over before death wipes them away for good. These memories, vibrantly told, form the nexus of this tale of past lives, interrupted occasionally by the author’s own reactions as he listens, and by his talk in the kitchen with his mother, who played no small part in the unfolding drama. This is as compelling as anything Chabon has written. The grandfather, a rebellious kid who grew up in the Jewish slums of South Philly, was possessed of a creative mind, a grasp of science and a fascination with space and rocketry that propelled him out of the slums and eventu- ally through the landscape of WWII. His subsequent marriage to a beautiful woman horribly damaged by life complicated his existence in ways that echo through the lives of the family, particularly that of their daughter. The strands of these lives, interrupted by war, weave their way through the subsequent decades in a book that is fascinat- ing, occasionally horrifying, always moving. I couldn’t put it down and I loved every word.
Far different from what one might expect in this Centennial National Park year, Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land takes us on an unpredictable and utterly revelatory journey through America’s national parks and monuments mingling their history, their present reality, the rock and bird and tree of them as we travel through place, the memory of place—whether in the minds of locals, of the parks’ guardians, or from Terry’s personal recollections. Slowly as we read, the very bones of place become visible until somehow, whether through the spectrum of poetry or personal story, natural history, history, or science, these parks and monuments become the very skeleton of our country. Characteristically, the book is magnificent and incredibly brave. As we hear prairie dogs chirp, watch a redheaded woodpecker, see in our mind’s eye Theodore Roosevelt’s grief; hike through the Teton’s with Terry’s straight-backed father, the terrain of Maine’s Acadia Park with her husband Brooke; ride horseback with them through the terrain of the Civil War, slowly, place by place our country begins to emerge, stone linked to story, history to present reality. The South’s Civil War outlook is linked to that of the sagebrush rebellion here in the West; Big Bend and the thought of walls meant to keep people out to the inevitable desecration of nature; the author’s own fratricidal rage to the indifference of the Arctic wild; her (everyone’s) righteous rage in Gulf Island, in Canyonlands, to the devastation wrecked by the oil industry; injustice to First Peoples, injustice to all, to Alcatrez. The conflagration of Glacier National Park, sets the pages on fire. Along with our hearts. But then to the Cesar Chavez monument, emblem of hope. Change is possible. The Hour of Land is at hand. With unholy clarity Terry has shown us our land, its physical body, the bones of its history, the urgent reality of our roles in its future. A book to be devoured, this is also an urgent call to action.
Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran who is no stranger to war or to violence, has a peaceful new occupation: reading the news to isolated communities in North Texas. Until he accepts a gold piece as payment for transporting back to her own people a 10-year-old white girl who’d been captured by the Kiowa four years before. Trouble is, Joanna thinks she’s been kidnapped; that the Kiowa are her people. So begins a journey you’re guaranteed not just to enjoy but think about and remember as this unlikely duo takes to the road, trailed by danger. Although they slowly forge a bond, despite themselves, Captain Kidd is determined to do what he considers to be right. At journey’s end what’s right becomes problematic, however, and the expected sentimental ending becomes instead a situation that is unexpected, unsettling, and ambiguous—both legally and morally. Which, along with the lyrical writing, may be the reason this little novel was short- listed for the National Book Award last year. But awards notwith- standing, this is a rip-snorting Western novel, full of action, while at the same time a touching tale of two people, one 70, one 10, learning to care. A rare and lovely combination.
Like Nutshell, the startling reenactment of “Hamlet” I talked about last week, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, is a Shakespearean retelling, this time” of “The Tempest.” It’s also a novel of revenge unlike any you’ve ever encountered. It involves a famous theatre director, Felix, who, on the brink of launching a production of ”The Tempest” that will secure him eternal fame, is cast out of the world he loves by a conniving assistant. If not already alerted to the fact that, although part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series Hag-Seed is a highly unusual retelling of “The Tempest,” the reader would recognize the odd quality of the rough magic in the air right in the Prologue, which features dialogue in rollicking rap delivered by a burley boatswain; Ariel clad in a blue plastic bathing cap and iridescent googles; the crack of gunshots. Clearly no ordinary play!
But back to the story. Our hero Felix, cast out, downcast, bent on revenge, now lives in an abandoned shack, his only company the ghost of his long-dead daughter Miranda. After finally coming to life Felix applies for a job as theatre director at the local correctional facility. The inmates, dubious to a man and dangerous to say the least, become increasingly enchanted by Shakespeare—re-written to suit their world—and by the heady seductions of theatre, while the reader grows equally enchanted by them. Then Felix learns his nemesis is to visit the prison—preparatory to doing away with the theatre program that the inmates so love.
What follows is pure Shakespeare. Or rather, pure Margaret Atwood: people at cross purposes, plays within plays, star-crossed fates if not lovers, a tangle of betrayal and fealty, love and greed and jealously, all of which proceed at a heart-in-throat pace, the mood at once darkly cynical and deliciously satiric, every page conveying the irresistible sorcery of the stage and the heady air of comedy. Pure magic.
Jim Harrison, that rough and ready yet supremely literary writer who wove the physical world through his poetry, his novels, his wondrous novellas and stories, died last week. He’ll be sorely missed. Considered together, the three novellas of his final book, The Ancient Minstrel, seem oddly linked, a coda of sorts, although at first glance they bare scant similarity to one another. The title tale is a self-mocking account of an aging writer, separated from his wife but only by the distance of the yard since he inhabits the writer’s studio, his wife the house they once shared. As always sex is on his mind, along with old nightmares, poetry, booze, dogs, dinners, rivers, hard work, pigs—the lifelong preoccupations and passions that have enriched and bedeviled his years. If there’s a hero in this tale, it’s the author’s wife, as the last line of the epilogue bears out with marked self-irony.
Irony enforced by the second novella, the funny, lovely “Eggs,” featuring one of the most clear-eyed, likable creations in Harrison’s fiction, a woman who grew up with alcoholics and knows what she now wants—chickens, a baby, the farm-life denied her mother—and what she doesn’t want. Men. Not that she spurns them; she just wants her own life. Then the disturbing “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” carries the addictions from both previous tales to the loathsome extreme of pedophilia. Somehow the second and third tales seem to bookend the first, perhaps because they detail the best and worst of the character in “The Ancient Minstrel” and of the author—the Rabelaisian appetite for life that is at the heart of his talent, the harm it can do. Whether meant as a coda or not, this is signature Harrison, gutsy, funny, dead-honest, as full of contrary currents and of beauty, as the rivers he so loved to write about.